After Theseus discovers how to escape the labyrinth, Athens no longer has to pay its tribute of young men to Crete to be fed to the Minotaur. Theseus becomes a hero in Athens, and everyone asks him for help when they run into dangers. That year in Calydon, a city near Athens, the king throws a huge festival celebrating Ceres, Minerva, and Bacchus for blessing the region. Diana is forgotten, and she flies into a rage. To get her vengeance, she sets a vicious boar loose in Calydon. The boar tramples the crops and livestock. The people hide behind the city walls.
For the last few of the Metamorphoses’ stories, the gods have been mostly absent from the action. Now, just as the Athenians are celebrating an end to their sufferings at the hands of the people from Crete, they anger Diana by refusing to worship her. Diana unleashes a vicious bull into Calydon, showing how both humans and the gods pose threats throughout the world.
Meleager, a young soldier, gathers a group of fighters to kill the bull. Among this group are Telamon and Peleus, Aeacus’s sons, and Atalanta, a female archer whose face is a combination of masculine and feminine features. When Meleager sees Atalanta, he immediately desires her. However, he focuses on killing the boar. The hunters assemble on a plateau, some laying traps and others unleashing hounds. The boar careens towards the hunters, flattening the trees and hounds that lie in its path.
This passage mentions that Telamon and Peleus are part of the group that confronts the Calydonian boar. These two men will be important later on. As a woman, Atalanta is a potential distraction for the soldiers who set out to kill the boar. Meleager immediately desires Atalanta when he sees her and is almost thrown off his focus.
The hunters throw their spears at the boar and miss. They call on Apollo to help their spears meet their target, but Diana removes the tips of their spears in mid-flight. The boar’s fury increases, and he flattens several hunters. One of the hunters climbs a tree to safety. Telamon trips as he tries to approach the boar. Atalanta shoots an arrow that strikes the boar beneath its ear. Meleager boasts to the others of Atalanta’s successful shot. The hunters are ashamed that Meleager is boasting about a woman. One of them tries to prove himself by killing the boar, but it impales him with its tusks.
Atalanta is the first of the group to actually strike the boar with an arrow, embarrassing the male soldiers by making them feel less manly. When Meleager praises Atalanta’s shot, the men become more upset and try to prove that they are better hunters than a woman. In this way, Atalanta—as a woman—disturbs the norm amongst the male soldiers. The tension of desire between her and Meleager further stirs things up.
The hunters continue to fight the boar. Theseus misses every time he tries to strike the boar. At last, one of Meleager’s spears hits the boar’s back. The boar goes wild with fury and pain. Meleager advances and drives the spear deeper, killing the boar. Meleager’s fellow hunters applaud him, but Meleager gives Atalanta the boar’s hide and tusks and shouts that he shares his glory with her. The men are jealous and ashamed. Meleager’s uncles seize the prizes from Atalanta, saying she doesn’t deserve them because she’s a woman. Meleager kills both his uncles.
Meleager’s desire for Atalanta ultimately leads him to kill his own uncles. This shows that, in this case, the bond of romantic love and desire that Meleager feels towards a female love interest surpasses his loyalty and love towards his family. In this way, Meleager’s love for Atalanta causes him to create dissension amongst his fellow soldiers and to ultimately destroy his familial ties.
Meleager’s mother Althaea is praising her son when she sees her brothers’ corpses. Hearing that Meleager killed them, she decides to avenge their death. Back when Althaea was giving birth to Meleager, the Three Fates had put a curse on the new baby by throwing a shard of wood into the fire and saying he would live as long as that piece of wood. Althaea had snatched the fragment out of the fire, soaked it in water, and hid it away. Now, Althaea gets out the fragment and orders her servants to light a fire.
Althaea ceases to praise Meleager’s glory the instant she sees her brother’s corpses, illustrating the battle between motherly and sisterly love. The fact that her first instinct is to avenge her brother’s death by killing her son shows that her love towards her son is surpassed by her love towards her brothers and suggests that sisterly love is of a higher order than motherly love.
Althaea takes the fragment of wood in and out of the fire, battling between motherly and sisterly affection. Her expression fluctuates between anger and compassion. She feels that she can’t let her brothers go unavenged, but also that she can’t kill her own son. At last, she decides to avenge her brothers and tosses the fragment into the flames. Out in the city, Meleager feels a burning inside his body. He calls for his family and burns to death before their eyes.
Althaea’s compassion for her son doesn’t overpower her wish to avenge her brothers’ death. Althaea’s predicament is similar to Procne’s, when Procne debates whether to sacrifice her son out of loyalty to her sister. In both cases, the women decide that the bonds related to their kingdom—their brothers and sisters—are more important than their bonds to their children.
Calydon mourns Meleager’s death. Feeling guilty for killing her son, Althaea kills herself. Meleager’s sisters beat their breasts in grief and kiss their brother’s body on the funeral pyre. Diana, satisfied with her vengeance, turns his sisters into birds.
Just after deciding that she can’t let her brothers’ death go unavenged, Althaea kills herself in guilt over killing her son. This shows that when two bonds of love contest each other, there may be no right answer. The person is forced to choose, with painful consequences either way.